1. Into the Woods

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Kadav gave the dazed smith a hard shove toward the safety of the tavern. The rest was up to him for there was not a second to lose. The priest was already scrambling for cover, unceremoniously hiking his habit up to the hips. Parents shouted, and children raced home. Doors slammed, and shutters clacked shut. Chimney smoke turned thick and dark as the fires inside were doused. It was all done very quickly. The panic was becoming routine.

As carefully as he had prepared for this moment, Kadav realized that he had already committed a couple crucial mistakes. In the first place, he should not have tethered the horse so securely to its hitching post; his fingers fumbled at the tight knot, wasting precious seconds. And rather than waiting under the familiar eaves of the tavern, he should have staked out a position closer to the edge of town. If he never reached the cover of the woods, all his ingenuity would count for nothing. But it was too late for second guessing now. He would have to make the best of the situation.

Having finally managed to untie the stallion, he swung up into the saddle and gave it a hard kick. He had never mounted so smoothly; danger always brought out the best in him. Not so the jittery horse which only tossed its head and refused to budge. Kadav was no master of horses, but he knew intuitively what the situation required; he had to show the horse that his will was stronger than its own fear. He compressed his knees against its flank and choked up on the reins until his knuckles turned white. His will won out. With a final shudder, the stallion broke into an all-out gallop. It would have kept right on galloping had Kadav not brought it to a skidding halt at the edge of town, pulling up hard on the reins.

Sweating profusely under his bonnet, he turned to face the road. At the far end of town, past the gap-toothed rows of shops, only a heap of blackened timbers remained where the white steeple of the chapel had once loomed. As much as he loathed that place, the town felt incomplete without it, hardly a proper town at all.

The forest had mostly gone to russet and ocher. The dragon sent up flocks of multi-hued leaves as it skimmed over the trees. It dispersed a low cloud of campfire smoke that, Kadav noted, was in the wrong place to belong to the Bursacks or a local. If fortune hunters had arrived from afar, they were too late. By the end of the day, the dragon would already be slain and Kadav would be a legend or...

The dragon glided earthward, setting itself down into the dirt road with a bird's grace.

A new idea caught Kadav's imagination: what if he could capture the beast alive? Perhaps it could be tamed or taught to do tricks. Better yet, what if it could be saddled and ridden, a flying steed of mythical proportions, able to rain down fire and brimstone at his command? Kingdoms would pay homage, and the common people would revere him like a god. But when the dragon turned its great golden eyes upon him, Kadav realized it would never work. A tick would have a better chance of taming a dog.

The dragon tilted its head to one side as if considering what to make of the twiggy ingénue astride its svelte stallion. At length it snorted, as if having reached a decision. It settled its weight on its hind legs, unfurled its great wings, and prepared to spring. It had taken the bait.

"YAH!" Kadav snapped the reins, and the stallion launched toward cover of the woods. "YAH-YAH-YAH!" Wind gusted in his face and snapped the dress about his legs. He pressed himself low in the saddle. The ground blurred, churning past in a continuous thunder. Ahead of them, the forest loomed dark and welcoming. If only it wasn't so far away.

Kadav didn't dare look back. The roar of the dragon's breath filled his ears, a sound like water being thrown on an inferno, something between a bellow and a hiss. An intense heat washed over his neck and shoulders, causing the tiny hairs there to crackle. A dark shadow fell over him, and he feared that the end had come. He wondered if he would feel any pain.

Suddenly, the dragon let out an ear-splitting screech of rage. Trunks flashed by, and twigs whipped Kadav in the face. Had he any breath to spare, he would have whooped in triumph. He was still alive, and they were in the woods.

* * * * *

Always before, Kadav had set the course through the woods, keeping to level ground and open spaces. This time, driven by its animal instincts, the stallion chose its own way, threading between trees and bounding over fallen logs and weed-clogged channels without breaking stride. Kadav had only to hold on. Surprisingly, this was not very hard to do, the ride being unusually smooth. He had never experienced such an exhilaration of speed. It was like being saddled onto the wind. When the stallion banked, he leaned. When it leaped, he soared. Like some mythical breed of two-headed centaur, their two bodies flowed together as one.

Close behind, the dragon tore through the forest like a boulder hurtled from the catapult of the gods. It pushed aside or smashed apart trees, sending out a whistling spray of wooden shrapnel that stung and peened him in the back. Yet, just as Kadav hoped, the forest was enough of an encumbrance for them to maintain and even extend their lead. Gradually, the sounds of pursuit diminished from a mind-obliterating cacophony to an ear-throbbing roar to merely loud noise. Slowly, he became aware of the drumbeat of hooves again, a quick two-part rhythm: tha-bum, tha-bum, tha-bum.

Then, all at once, the noise ceased.

Kadav's momentary relief turned to worry. Had the dragon given up or just paused to rest? Was it tracking them from above, ready to swoop down like a hawk through a break in the canopy? There was no way of telling. Looking around gave him vertigo, and he didn't dare change course or stop lest they present an easy target. All he could do was carry on with the plan and hope the dragon caught up with them later. Shedding some of its fright, the stallion dropped into a fast canter. Suddenly out of phase, Kadav bumped jarringly in the saddle but resisted giving it the heel. Best to let it catch its wind in case they needed another burst of speed later.

Kadav could tell they were entering the grove of god trees from the eerie quiet that descended over them. Even the pounding of hoof-beats was strangely muted on the deadfall. The tall, straight trunks marched off like the pillars of a giant's mansion.

A sudden change in air pressure, like the arrival of a storm front, signaled the dragon's reappearance. Having sensed it also, the stallion lengthened its stride, once again achieving that gliding velocity that was one part horse and one part wind spirit. He could hear the dragon now, the rush of displaced air, the musical chiming of its scales, and the snap and thrum of its wings.

Kadav risked a glance over his shoulder. It was a couple hundred paces behind them and closing fast. The open spaces gave it the room it needed to flex its wings. Seen face on it was all wings and head and tapered golden eyes. Tearing his gaze away, he peered ahead into the deepening gloom where two familiar pillars began to materialize in the gray-green haze. He could just make out the crossbeam with its glinting lower edge and the crow's nest where a sturdy hammer blow to the trigger mechanism would send it razoring downward. It was all coming into focus now. Everything was going according to plan—except for one all-important detail. The crow's nest was empty.

Unbidden, the words of a prayer came to mind. Kadav and his mother and all eleven siblings had knelt at their bedsides and uttered it every night before turning in for sleep. Rhojë, Rhojë, keeper of light. You are my watchman in the night. And should my soul be set to flight, welcome me in your halls tonight. Rhojë, Rhojë... The words cycled in his mind, a haunting childhood refrain. There! His heart leaped at the sight of Hrago clambering up the ladder, a large hammer held between his teeth.

Relieved andterrified, there was nothing to do now but hold on. It was a politician's worstnightmare; everything was out of his control. It was all up to the stallion,whether it could reach the apparatus ahead of the dragon. It was all up toHrago, whether he could reach the crow's nest in time and trigger the mechanismat precisely the right moment. It was all up to wood and steel and theacceleration of gravity. And it was all up to Rhojë in heaven, if he smiledupon him this day.

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